Increase medical education reach and impact with digital media

Back to Insights

The high value of unbranded content

This Insight provides practical advice for those seeking to make greater use of digital technology in their continuing medical education programmes.

Companies have long provided medical education. Without mentioning specific brands or even compounds, medical education is a valuable form of engagement with the medical community. When done correctly, it paves the road down which outward communications flow to clinicians — and, just as important, carries back insights.

Medical education is an essential part of many pre-launch programmes — especially when expanding the indications for existing treatments or seeking to establish a company’s reputation in new therapy areas. It is also vital in lifecycle management, enabling companies to leverage their knowledge of a disease area to support a product over the long term.

However, it is only relatively recently that companies have used digital technology to increase their medical education programmes reach and enable more frequent content provision. This is a major opportunity that pharma is now taking very seriously.

Key points  

  • HCPs are most accessible through high-value, unbranded medical communication
  • Digital technologies can increase the reach and impact of these investments
  • Webinars are popular but require well-programmed, lively content
  • There are significant opportunities with shorter 'bite-sized' digital formats
  • You can achieve greater reach via digital channels
  • Medical Affairs can leverage Commercial teams’ digital marketing skills
Digitally-savvy HCPs are looking for easily-accessible medical content

New HCP engagement models

Forward-thinking companies know that the healthcare environment is changing, and new approaches are needed. One client recently highlighted that two decades ago, most HCPs would likely be male, over 50 years old, and working full-time. They would lack digital fluency but were accessible via in-person meetings with reps. Today, it’s completely different. HCPs are usually female, often working part-time, are often inaccessible to face-to-face meetings, but are digitally savvy.

The general healthcare environment also changed. In the past, HCPs would make most prescriptions according to personal preference. Today, most prescription decisions are 'network aligned', meaning that HCPs decide as a group or under the direction of health authorities.

This new environment impacts how companies operate. The primary engagement strategies of the past — focusing on individual HCPs, sales-based communication, and prioritising short-term results — apply less. Today, pharma companies increasingly engage decision-making units (DMUs), use many more touchpoints, and often prioritise relationships over short-term sales targets.

It is this new healthcare environment that makes medical education — and unbranded medical content generally — central. These approaches generate trust and open doors that have been closing. When presented in ways that meet the expectations of today’s digitally-fluent HCPs, these approaches build lasting avenues of communication.

Balance customer and company needs

While the ‘content marketing’ approach of medical education does have commercial value in the long term, the primary objective isn’t sales. It is to build your reputation and establish trust. Content marketing shouldn’t be misunderstood to be ‘disguised’ brand marketing. Audiences easily see through such attempts — disappointing the very people companies are hoping to engage.

This is why establishing the correct weighting between ‘brand’, ‘company’ and ‘customer’ from the outset is vital. The primary focus should be on the HCPs and the benefits they receive. In this regard, many companies establish an external steering committee with independent clinicians to plan and oversee medical education programmes. They help ensure that the content focuses on the audience's needs — answering real clinical questions and responding to the daily realities of HCPs.

Effective webinars

One digital format well-established in medical education is, of course, the webinar. The number of webinars exploded during COVID-19, and they remain an essential channel for good reason. When properly planned and structured, webinars can provide a dynamic experience.

As a rule of thumb, avoid a ‘keynote’ presentation with slides. You can’t replicate an in-person conference in an online webinar. It is a different medium. Instead of taking cues from conferences, pharma is increasingly inspired by broadcast television. By programming shorter segments, you keep things moving and increase engagement.

For example, Novo Nordisk uses a ‘chat show’ format. This approach has a host plus two or three key opinion leader (KOL) panellists. Each KOL makes a 5-minute presentation. Then, they switch to an interview format to discuss the topics raised and pull in audience questions.

Webinars work best with great preparation. It’s good practice to run two briefing sessions with panellists beforehand to agree on the most interesting clinical problems for discussion and ensure presentations match the required timings. You can also take the slides and create graphics that fit a broadcast medium — just like a regular TV programme.

It’s worth noting that such live webinars may have different medical/legal standards because authorities accept that they are harder to control. However, any recordings shared later need to be compliant, which may require adding on-screen references and editing out some material.

How pharma is learning from Instagram and TikTok

While medical webinars can provide a great experience, they are still a significant time commitment for HCPs. Webinars are rarely shorter than 40 minutes, and many last much longer. There are only so many that an HCP can attend each month. However, other digital media formats do enable more frequent engagement.

When you think of your competitors, you probably don’t picture YouTube, Instagram or TikTok. Pharma companies are focused on their direct competitors — and HCPs, of course. But there is competition for doctors´ attention, especially when you want to engage outside regular working hours. And in that arena, you are competing with all media.

That might sound intimidating. After all, how can our Medical Affairs teams possibly compete with YouTube? Well, the fact is that companies are doing it. Learning from the giants of the tech world, innovative pharma companies are creating new forms of content that precisely meet HCP needs.

HCPs are engaging with well-presented medical content that fits intotheir working day

Short-form video

One lesson from digital media that many companies have learned is to keep it short and specific. Consequently, many companies are supplementing medical webinars with short-form video. Usually running for 2-minutes or less, this format provides immediate and clear answers to common questions — just the kind of queries that HCPs make when researching a condition.

An efficient way to get this video content is to run a short session with KOLs after a webinar. You can prepare people during the webinar briefing meetings, providing questions in advance — and be clear over any information that would be difficult for MLR, e.g. mentioning product names.  

With very specific questions, you get concise answers. For example:

  • Who should be screened for X condition?
  • How do you go about initiating treatment for Y?
  • How can you encourage patient behaviour change with Z condition?

As a result, short-form video is easier to distribute. By keeping the topics specific, the content is more ‘searchable’ when optimised for internet search engines. It also works well in on-demand media such as HCP content hubs — especially when pages are organised correctly. And, as an easily-consumed resource, shorter videos can be shared via email and other channels.

You can expect that shorter videos get more engagement than longer ones. A 20-minute video or hour-long webinar is challenging to fit into a doctor's typical working day. But 2-minutes for quality content regularly is available. And, being 'snackable', one short video often leads to the next. By providing clear answers, you demonstrate value, which keeps people clicking.

Learn more about video in pharma marketing

Pharma succeeds with well-presented content in the right media formats

Channels to increase reach

Many established pharma marketing channels can be applied to unbranded medical information and education programmes — significantly increasing the reach of your materials and the frequency with which HCPs engage.

Trusted-sender email: This is an excellent way to reach more HCPs — especially when sent by people HCPs already know, such as MSLs. Such ‘trusted sender’ communication will have higher open rates than standard marketing emails. It is an excellent way to connect HCPs with information sources and update them on fresh content.

Websites: The quintessential ‘on-demand’ channel, websites are often central to a company’s engagement strategy. HCPs do visit pharma websites looking for information. However, they will quickly click away if the content is outdated, difficult to overview, or fails to answer their specific questions. A well-designed website experience is essential, and if content is carefully written for search engine indexing, it will draw many visitors.

Automated engagement: Combining the benefits of always-accessible on-demand channels like websites with the personalised communication of MSL meetings, automated solutions open new opportunities. Pioneered by Anthill, these solutions combine 'chatbot' interactions with traditional presentation materials. They offer Medical Affairs teams enormous potential to increase the reach of their educational activities.

Remote engagement: Whether used for one-to-one meetings or one-to-many ‘mini webinars’, remote solutions provide flexibility for both MSLs and HCPs. By removing travel time and making scheduling simple, remote meeting technology increases the number of HCPs receiving personalised information from MSLs.

These channel opportunities are made easier with efficient content production. For example, modular content avoids the duplication of work and content excellence programmes streamline the whole process. There are also opportunities to employ artificial intelligence (AI) to speed and simplify content creation. Generative AI can be very useful. It enables the automation of medical writing and production of images, animations, and videos. However, it needs to be applied carefully to ensure compliance.

Building an HCP experience

While it's crucial that medical education is distinct from commercial engagements, unbranded communication shouldn’t mean boring content poorly presented. A great customer experience matters just as much for medical content as it does for branded materials.

In fact, there is a major opportunity to apply the digital marketing skills developed in Commercial departments to medical education. Therefore, while the objectives and content are different, Medical Affairs departments have started to use today’s best communication practices. In this effort, Commercial is an obvious partner.

Colleagues in Marketing and Sales will have digital communication expertise that will likely be very useful. This is especially true when defining and designing communication channels and connecting them. While Medical Affairs teams have begun building new digital channels, content formats, and approaches for tailoring the engagement to various HCP segments, these elements need orchestrating to provide an integrated experience.1 Applying omnichannel marketing strategies to medical content, for many companies, is the next step.

A seamless, coordinated, and compliant HCP experience across various channels and topics allows HCPs to pick up where they left off, interacting with companies to access information when needed.1

Commercial will also have extensive experience with user interaction data and analytics. These skills are essential in digital media. With good user data, you can measure content performance and make continual improvements. You can learn which topics are most attractive to HCPs, assess individual understanding, and highlight content problem areas to fix. Getting actionable data of this kind requires carefully designing the content and adding interactive possibilities at key moments — an area where colleagues in Marketing can be especially helpful.

Channel and content orchestration example (Source: McKinsey & Company)

Expanded reach and contact frequency

Companies are changing how they engage the medical community. The focus is shifting from the sales call to relationship building. Medical departments are more customer-facing. And they are increasingly seeking to be proactive — distributing materials rather than only responding to requests.

These initiatives are popular and necessary. While falling access to HCPs is continually highlighted as an issue, doctors remain open to engaging with unbranded content and continuing education programmes. And yet, this new role does call for new skills. The digitally savvy HCP of today has higher expectations. Consequently, there is tremendous potential to apply digital media to increase the reach and impact of medical content.

These opportunities are often found in packaging materials for easier consumption — and delivering them through multiple channels. Such digital marketing strategies expand the audience for your content. Instead of a few one-hour sessions, engagements can be more frequent because they fit into the working day — and also beyond it.

Where next?

Get four practical examples of digital marketing techniques — directly relevant to medical communications — in an Anthill Insight that explains 'content experience' and how it increases HCP engagement with websites, emails, and other channels.

Read the Insight

More on digital HCP engagement

Marketing guide: understanding omnichannel
Webinar recording
: omnichannel pioneers
: HCP content preferences


1. McKinsey Report: A vision for medical affairs 2030: Five priorities for patient impact, 11 Oct 2023


Success factors

Pharma product launch — critical success factors

Learn how new HCP engagement models are enabling products to break through in a rapidly-changing environment. This Insight explains what it takes to succeed.

Customer Experience

The 3 building blocks of pharma omnichannel product launches

Learn how to access the full potential of omnichannel in pharma product launches. This Insight explores the fundamental building blocks and highlights techniques that every company can apply.

AI engagement

How to start with pharma marketing AI

Learn how you can safely begin implementing AI technologies into your marketing right now — and work with confidence knowing that regulations are being followed.